(Reuters) - Jeff Sessions may be known as a pro-business conservative but as U.S. attorney general he is unlikely to shy away from indicting big companies and individuals for serious white-collar crimes, legal experts said, citing his record as a lawmaker.
President-elect Donald Trump on Friday named Sessions, a four-term senator from Alabama and former federal prosecutor, to lead the Justice Department. Sessions, 69, an early supporter of Trump, is expected to accept the cabinet post if confirmed.
A spokesman for Sessions did not respond to a request for comment.
Because of the dearth of big banks and companies in his home state, there is little in Sessions’ track record as a federal prosecutor and state attorney general from the 1970s to the 1990s to suggest how he might approach complex cases of corporate malfeasance.
But a review of his record in the Senate indicates he will likely push for corporate indictments, instead of settling for fines, and may focus on putting more executives in prison, lawyers who specialize in white-collar crime said.
For example, during a 2010 confirmation hearing for James Cole, Sessions questioned the former U.S. deputy attorney general about the “dangerous” philosophy of not charging companies criminally because of concerns that doing so could lead to bankruptcy and hurt employees and shareholders.
“Normally, I was taught if they violated a law, you charge them. If they didn’t violate the law, you don’t charge them,” Sessions said during the hearing.
Matthew Schwartz, a former federal prosecutor and lawyer at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, said Sessions’ remarks suggested that he may be more willing than the current administration to require a guilty plea from corporations with less concern for collateral consequences.
He said Sessions would also likely support the Justice Department’s renewed efforts to prosecute executives, outlined in a policy memo last year by Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
While an unabashed businessman, Trump was highly critical of Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, accusing his Democratic rival of being beholden to the interests of big investment banks.
That message resonated with many working class voters who suffered in the financial crisis of 2008 and are still angry that no top-level Wall Street figures have been prosecuted for acts that almost brought down the global financial system.
“Until we see evidence to the contrary, it appears that the new Justice Department will be one that will seek to hold every individual accountable to the fullest extent. So the stakes may be higher,” Schwartz said.
Jackson Sharman, a white-collar defense lawyer in Alabama, said that he believed Sessions would want to be as tough on white-collar as on street criminals. He pointed to Sessions’ recent opposition to a crime bill that would have shown sentencing leniency for non-violent offenders.
Daniel Richman, a former federal prosecutor and Columbia Law School professor, who has testified before Sessions’ Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed that the Alabama senator will be “a strong supporter” of corporate enforcement.
In the past, Sessions has come out in favor of tough Justice Department tactics against companies accused of fraud.
In 2007, corporate counsels pushed for a law that would have stopped the Justice Department from pressuring companies to waive attorney-client privilege during fraud investigations.
But during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sessions argued against any such rule, noting that prosecutors regularly pressure street criminals to waive constitutional rights using the threat of tougher penalties if they do not co-operate.
Sessions said the Justice Department should be able to use similar leverage against corporations.
Corporate crime “is not easy to prosecute or investigate. They have the best lawyers that you can find, and they utilize all the legitimate tools that they have,” Sessions said. “And you have to be strong... a prosecutor cannot be a weak-kneed person going up against a major corporation in a fraud case.”
Reporting by Nathan Layne in New York and Joel Schectman in Washington D.C.; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Bill Rigby